The Christmas Day failed bomb attack on Northwest flight 253 by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab has juiced up the enthusiasm for America's most intrusive modern religion -- Worshipping at the Altar of the Holy Metal Detector. This is something I started writing about back in 2004 (see Worshiping here) and again in 2008 (see Revisited here) and it looks like it's time to do some more.
A quick summary of those essays is that the passenger screening part of airport security is faith-based, not fact-based. The most obvious pointer to this being the case is that what you say at the airport matters, and what people around you think at the airport matters. Compare this faith-based airport environment to a familiar fact-based environment: What happens when you get in your car and turn the key? If you bad-mouth your car does it refuse to start? If passengers in your car say, "We sincerely don't believe your car will start." and start praying that it won't, does it make a difference? Your car is a fact-based environment, the passenger screening aspects of airport security are not.
This means that airport screening is a ritual, it is a series of actions taken to make passengers feel that their plane will fly better. And the TSA are priests for this religion.
Further evidence of the faith-based nature of airport security is the change in ritual each time a scary incident happens. And while these changes defy fact-based logic, they are quite sensible on the emotional level.
o After the Lockerbie Incident in 1988, when the plane was brought down by a bomb smuggled in with passenger luggage, we got the two inane questions: "Did you pack your own bags?" and "Did some stranger ask you to take a bag on board?"
o The 9-11 Disaster in 2001 took passenger screening to a whole new level, and added "no knives of any size" to the screening list after the terrorists used box cutters to intimidate passengers.
o Also in 2001 came the Shoe Bomber, which added shoe removal and scanning.
o Then in 2006 came the Liquid Bomb Plot, which produced the "Only tiny amounts of liquids on board." restriction.
o This latest bomber hid explosives in his underwear, which means... Yikes! I don't even want to go where this is leading! LoL!
I can laugh at this because I rarely fly any more. I gave it up in 2002 because I found airport screening so deeply insulting. I don't believe in this religion, so I won't practice it unless you twist my arm. But for me it's sad, so sad. I didn't get a commercial pilot's license because I wanted to overcome some fear, I got it because I love the wonder of flying.
It's too bad for me that such insulting and spooky rituals have become so much a part of the commercial flying experience, and it's sad for the airline industry, too, because the whole industry is so marginalized compared with what it would be if it could lose this curse.
The way to start fixing this problem is to recognize that some passengers need a ritual. Some are deeply afraid of flying. Those passengers can be helped with two things: a voluntary ritual, and some science. The science part is learning more about what's happening when a plane is flying, so there is less mystery. Adding more science isn't hard to do. Here's one simple way: Instead of news and cooking channel broadcasts in airport waiting areas, we should be running a steady stream of videos on the various scientific and technical aspects of flying. The goal is that every passenger should know nearly as much about flying as the pilots because the more people know, the less they will fear -- even those who are deeply afraid.
I don't have any good suggestions for the ritual part, other than it should have two features. First, it should be voluntary -- if you want to indulge in it, you can, and if you choose to pass on it, that's OK, too. (By the way, another name for this kind of voluntary ritual is religious tolerance.) The second feature is that it should be decoupled from terrorism. Passengers should be able to pray and sacrifice for a safe flight, and that prayer should cover engine problems, bad weather, landing in water, flight delays, turbulence, bad food, crying babies, cranky flight attendants, windows popping out in mid-air, all the other scary stuff from creepy airplane TV/movies, whatever else a person worries about while flying... and also terrorist attack.
Until we, the people, recognize the TSA for what it is -- a provider of ritual for a modern religion -- we should expect more rituals that are factually wacky but emotionally logical to be added after every scary incident.
Further note: I admit it: I'm surprised at how much emotional/political heat this incident is generating. It is way above what I was expecting. But, to me, that shows just how scary and deeply emotional flying is for many, many Americans.
In my humble opinion, spending money to research and weaken this link between fear and flying would be a real good way to spend recovery dollars. Success would mean I could fly commercially again, and it would mean the airline industry would become two-to-five times as big as it is now. (This last part is just a WAG -- Wild Ass Guess -- on my part, but it shows how economically important I think this issue is.)
Update: In my opinion, this editorial in the Washington Post relects a more cool-headed approach to the terrorism issue: 5 Myths about keeping America safe from Terrorism by Stephen Flynn, 31 Dec 2009. On the other hand, I disagree with this editorial by Victoria Toensing in the 31 Dec 2009 WSJ, Questions for Abdulmutallab. Toensing feels that fighting terror is too scary and dangerous for standard law to handle. She discounts the value of enfranchisement in dealing with this issue. For her terrorism is something only spies and soldiers will solve, not something ordinary citizens can affect. I feel that attitude promotes disenfranchisement so it's a sure way to keep terror alive and well.
Harry Reid, the Obama team, and the Liberal Democrats have focused down. They are panic thinking now. The emotion to "get the boys... sorry... bill home for Christmas" is pushing aside heads up, reasoned thinking on this project. Time for a blunder.
The expense of this Blunder is starting already, and won't end with bill passage.
o The expense that is starting now is credibility. Reid is engaging in a lot of tactics that are normally done underneath the public radar, but, never in recent times has a bill been more in the limelight. A lot of Americans who in the past haven't thought much about political maneuvering are having their eyes opened. This could easily become the 21st century replacement symbol for Pyrrhic Victory.
This eye opening on the part of the public is a long term expense to politicians in general, and it's going to be a big one. What it will lead to, I can't predict, but it's not going to be pretty for either politicians or the public. What I do know is the heart of this expense is going to be disenfranchisement. Obamacare is going to become a shining symbol for political chicanery.
o The next expense is going to be the "morning after" expense as people get their eyes opened as to what it is that actually got passed. Right now, Reid is essentially telling the people he's wheeling and dealing with, "Trust me. In addition to the goodies I'm giving you for your vote, this overall package is going to be a good one." But with this bill grown to over 2000 pages of legislation, I'm sure even he isn't keeping track anymore.
I'm also sure the lawyers of America are licking their chops. The economic recovery is going to be right on schedule for them. 2100 pages of hastily written text equals a white noise source -- people will be able to read into that text virtually anything they want to. The bill becomes The Bible-equivalent to a health care religious order.
o The expense after "morning after" is going to be the "fixing it" expense. This is where the special interest groups will have a field day. This process of trying to fix what has been passed will go on for years, and it will go on mostly under the radar. Their recovery is coming right on time, too.
Yup! Blunder Time has come to Obamacare.
An article in the December 7th, 2009 Wall Street Journal about the EPA's unilateral move to become the nation's climate change protector: EPA Declares Greenhouse Gases a Danger.
Yikes! Talk about some serious mission creep on the part of the EPA! This has all the earmarks of a blunder. It is an action taken in response to a new kind of threat, and it's being taken hastily to give America some teeth for the now-starting Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.
This could get as expensive as the Iraq/Afghan War.
The biggest threat of a hasty move such as this is massive disenfranchisement. This has not been well thought out, so whatever directives the EPA prounces in the next few months will be of the disenfranchising sort. This will be classic, "I'm here from the government and I'm here to help you."-sort of activity. Which means that everyone affected by the pronouncements will be thinking in terms of dodging the bullet, not in terms of trying to make this work.
I'm calling it now, and I'm calling it loud! BLUNDER! BLUNDER! BLUNDER!
Now we get to watch how the EPA will foster disenfranchisement and cost the US community billions to trillions. Look for the following:
o Draconian pronouncements.
o Many people working on weasling around those pronouncements.
o Growing corruption because of the feelings of disenfranchisement. (Feelings of, "This program is bullsh-t." on the part of both many of the sufferers and many of the enforcers.)
o Special deals being cut to avoid some of the worst of the contradictions in the pronouncements, and a climate where lobbying will be especially fruitful because of both the craziness of the pronouncements and the growing, "Meh... I don't care anymore." attitude of those having to deal with them as the months and years pass.
Ah well... Now we will get to see the really expensive side of the Climate Change Panic. This could easily become the War on Terror/Drugs/Prohibition of the 2010's.
Here is a WSJ editorial on the same topic: Dec 8, 2009 An Inconvenient Democracy, and another on December 11 The EPA's Carbon Bomb Fizzles.
Here is an 8 Feb 10 update on this EPA issue, another WSJ editorial Democratic Climate Revolt.
Here is a 22 Nov 10 WJS editorial, The EPA Permitorium. IT'S HAPPENING!
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Climategate doesn't fit my classic Panic Thinking and Blunder model, but it offers interesting insight into human thinking. It shows that we are witnessing an obscure science being transformed into a popular modern religion.
And, at the end of this piece, I offer an theory as to why this happened.
Thanks to the revelations of Climategate, we outsiders have some insight to the decision-making that has gone on among the scientists at the heart of the climate change controversy.
As I look upon the climate change issue, I see an interesting phenomenon happening -- we are watching an obscure branch of science being transformed into a popular modern religion. It is the transformation from science into religion which has blind-sided the scientists involved and created all the emotional heat that this topic is now generating.
Back in the 1980's, climate science was just another science. It was a sub-set of geology, and because of the complexity of what influences our Earth's weather, a relatively soft science -- soft meaning that controlled and reproducible results were hard to come by. This puts it on par with sciences such as sociology and pyschology, and quite different from fields such as electronics and physics.
Climate science is important in the same sense that mineralogy is important: Knowing better where valuable minerals are saves billions, and knowing better what weather is coming saves billions. But prior to the 1990's climate scientists recognized that they had a lot to learn to make their predictions more accurate.
Then in the nineties climatology began transforming -- it started to suffer more from The Curse of Being Important. The Curse first showed up as a benefit to the climate scientists: People with money to hand out began to hand out more in the direction of climate research. But that money was coming with a string attached: It came when the money hander-outers felt, in their gut (as in, an emotional feeling), that the climate may be getting out of control, and we humans needed to fix that. That meant that the more authoritatively alarming climate scientists were, the more money they got. Ouch! That kind of thinking doesn't promote unbiased and careful research! That was the dark side of The Curse.
So, the good side of this shift in community thinking was that grant money was getting easier and more plentiful. The bad side was that this money was most easily available to those who offered alarming scenarios to research -- those scenarios that resonated with the emotion that something was wrong and needed to be fixed.
Climatology was transforming and becoming high profile, but some of the old habits of obscure science died hard. One of those old habits was taking cheap shots at colleagues with differing viewpoints. In the good old days, before the money gusher opened up, this sniping was low-risk and low-cost because the stakes were low. But, as climatology became "respectable", and high-profile, and high money flow, the risk involved with taking those cheap shots grew.
Worse, as climatology became more and more the backbone for this newly emerging, high-tech religion -- a religion that stated that we humans had to do something to save our world -- the balanced science, the search for false-positives, became positively threatening for those being financed by the emotion-based gravy-train.
And that's where we stand today, and why Climategate is so earth-shaking. It has revealed a contemporary version of the old Emperor's New Clothes fable.
Now we get to see how strong the religious aspects of this movement really are.
In the 1970's alarmist climate scientists were predicting that an Ice Age was coming. It made for good Apocalypse-Is-Coming! reading in popular science magazines, but it didn't generate any community groundswell calling for preventive action to be taken.
In the 1990's alarmist climate scientists (many were the same ones as in the 1970's) changed their tune and said man-made changes to the atmosphere were causing global warming, and in the late 2000's this got the world community stoked up to take trillion-dollar action!
Why the difference? Why was global cooling a "Meh..." and global warming a "Yikes!"?
I suspect the difference was the "man-made" part. When the change became man-made then many people with money started feeling guilty -- the same way such people feel guilty about things such as past American racism, abuses of Native Americans, starving Africans, threatened children, and so on.
So, as the nineties rolled into the 2000's, climate change became part of the guilt industry, and as that happened, unbiased climate science became less important and more threatening to the gravy train.
And, it is this transformation that climate science has undergone that makes it such a fascinating illustration of human thinking.
The moral here: If you want money for your science, add religion and add guilt.
And finally, here's another WSJ editorial expressing some sympathetic ideas: from the December 8th, 2009 edition, The Totalities of Copenhagen. And another, explaining a different way to spend global climate change money that would have a lot more impact on saving the world: Time for a Smarter Approach to Global Warming.
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